Denmark, the Baltics, and Poland

Posted by Ron on April 2nd, 2017 filed in Travel
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This trip was a bit less planned, at least strategically, than our usual trips.  It all started with a flight alert I received for round trip to Copenhagen for $450.  We had to jump on it but rather than end back up in Copenhagen, we decided to search for return flights from neighboring major cities to see we could get something comparable without the full circle back.  Returning from nearly every other city increased the price by at least $100, except for Warsaw, Poland, so the choice was made for us and we booked the tickets without planning out what to do in between.

Initially we were thinking about going south to Czech Republic and/or Slovakia and/or Austria.  We had put together a rough draft of an itinerary and it had a lot of driving and not a lot of time in the three aforementioned companies.  I got another flight alert for Helsinki and while it was too soon to seriously consider it, I looked at the route and saw the Baltic states touching Poland and a light bulb lit up.  The Baltics were on our radar for a while and we had looked for cruises to visit all three before, but never found any (mainly because Lithuania doesn’t have any major coastal cities).  After some creative planning and taking advantage of super cheap inter-Europe airlines, our final itinerary all came together.

Copenhagen, Denmark

We arrived in Copenhagen about 2pm on a Saturday and took the train to the city center.  The first thing we noticed was that the thousands of bicycles at the train station were not locked up.  None of them.  I just couldn’t believe it and frantically searched for locks — we ended up finding two out of an endless sea of bikes.  We walked two blocks and checked into Hotel Tiffany, a nice boutique hotel chosen for proximity to the train station and Tivoli Gardens (which so happened to be closed this time of year…).  The family room we had reserved came with two bags of freshly made bread delivered to the room on each of our two mornings, which was a nice touch and let us ease into the time zone change.

We headed out in the drizzle towards Christiansborg Palace, due north of us.  We passed through an archway and there was a line of about 30 people on the side.  Somehow I convinced Jaime to get in line even though we had no idea what it was.  We came to realize that this actually happens quite often on our adventures — if there’s a line, we’ll get in it and if there’s a tower, we’ll go up it.  Turns out that this was both, it was a line for The Tower in the palace.  The views from the top were great and helped us get our footing on where we’d wander to next.  Still walking through the palace grounds, we came upon the Royal Stables and took a quick tour to see the horses and ornate carriages next door.

We continued the walk north looking for the best photo op in Copenhagen, a row of colorful buildings along a canal.  We almost gave up on it because it was farther than we realized and it was getting colder and we were getting wetter from the rain.  Right when I started to pull out a map, we saw a large group of tourists a block away — we had found Nyhavn.  After taking the obligatory pictures, we aimed towards a street food place popular with locals called Papiroen.  It was about a 15 minute walk across several scenic foot bridges.  From the outside in the rain, we would never have guessed the madness inside.  It’s a large industrial space that has maybe 30-40 different booths with different types of food and is jam-packed with people.  We almost left as there was nowhere to sit but then we lucked out and saw people leaving an overflow seating area in a loft above some of the food stands.  We had a hodgepodge of delicious ethnic foods and then walked back to the hotel for the night.

The next day we had a bit of a late start.  We walked along the famous pedestrian street called Strøget until we came upon one of a couple boat launches on the canals.  We bought tickets for an hour long tour around the city.  Because it was still cold and raining, most of the windows on the boat were fogged up, but it was still a nice way to break up the day and the kids enjoyed it.  Afterward, we walked to the 17th century Round Tower.  It’s one long circular ramp all the way up and makes for a nice stroll.  There are amazing views of the city from the top.  There is also an observatory at the very top though it was closed to the public.  On the way back, we went into the Christiansborg Palace only to find out that they were closing in 5 minutes.  We went back to the hotel to warm up and dry off.  For dinner, we took a taxi to and from a burger place called Cock’s and Cows.  I chose it purely from the witty name and the food ended up being extremely good.

The next morning, we ate our fresh breads from the hotel again and then went off to the airport.  Surprisingly we didn’t talk to a single person in the airport — gates would open based on scanning your individual tickets to proceed into different areas.  Since Denmark and Estonia are both in the EU, there was also no immigration or customs upon arrival.  We flew in and out of Riga, Latvia as it was cheapest for both airfare and car rental.  It added a bit of driving time but we appreciated seeing more of the countries than just the capitals so it was worth it in the end.  The only downside was that Hertz was not located in the airport.  It was a 5 minute walk away which might usually be fine except that it was very cold and had just started snowing.  We drove immediately to Tallinn, about 4.5 hours away.  The most interesting part of the drive was seeing the border buildings all boarded up.

Tallinn, Estonia

Since we were arriving after 8pm, we had to check-in for our apartment at the owners’ second location across town.  It seemed out of the way at first but since we needed parking we would have had to go there anyway to park as driving and parking is very limited within the Old Town.  The 15 minute escorted walk to the apartment was quite chilly as Tallinn is due north of Riga.  The streets were empty though and the city is gorgeous, especially at night.  We were staying in an apartment on the Old Town Square and as soon as we entered the plaza we were blown away.  Our apartment had two balconies overlooking it too and the view never got old.  I went out solo and brought some dinner back from a nearby restaurant that was just about to close.

The next morning, we asked some locals where we should eat breakfast and ended up at the Peppersack.  After a hearty breakfast we walked down the main shopping drag towards the most famous entrance, Viru Gate, on the southeast side of Old Town.  We then walked north along the inside of the city walls.  At one point, there was a small door with a staircase inside, so of course we went in, paid a small entrance fee, and ended up on top of the city walls.  You can actually walk along them for a bit but we decided against it as the walkways were too slippery.  Continuing north, we ended up at the Fat Margaret tower (best name ever).  It currently houses the Estonian Maritime Museum.  We warmed up in the museum, which had a couple of kids things to do, a whole floor dedicated to vikings, and great views from the top.

We stopped at a cafe for coffee and snacks before continuing onto Toompea Hill in the south west for the afternoon.  This part of town used to be separate from Old Town and was reserved for the rich.  There are only two ways to access the hill area (we went up one and down the other).  The main gate is through a house and then you walk up a pathway called the Long Leg.  One of your first sights is the very ornate Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  It’s even more ornate and beautiful inside (though take off your hats!).  Behind the cathedral is the Toompea Castle which currently houses parliament.  From this side, it didn’t look too exciting so we didn’t tour it and instead continued our wandering around.

We stopped at one of a couple viewing platforms that offer incredible views of Old Town.  It’s also one of the only times we saw other tourists in Estonia, and there were only a handful of them.  Continuing down the deserted streets, we see a sign for a Drinking Museum that also advertised a wine tasting.  The kids were being restless so we skipped the museum but couldn’t pass up the wine tasting (we ended up buying a bottle too).  It amazed me that even in the low season there was a very nice and attentive person just waiting for tourists to stumble in.  We got turned back by some construction and made it to the second viewing platform in a roundabout way.  This one was even better than the first and the only place we stopped for an official family photo.

We rounded out Toompea Hill by heading to the final corner that has a tower called Kiek in de Kok (say it out loud).  It wasn’t anything special and they didn’t take advantage of the name for tourists’ sake.  It was along some more old city walls and a couple other towers that were turned into cafes and restaurants.  We went inside, asked how to go up to the top of the tower(s), were told to buy a ticket, and then start by going downstairs…  We followed her directions thinking it was the start of a tour path.  The stairs actually lead to a single tiny room full of old Estonian candy bars in glass cases.  It was completely random and we couldn’t help but laugh about it for most of the trip.  When we went up the original stairs by the ticket desk, it led to an empty cafe on one floor and an empty restaurant on the next floor.  Not wanting to intrude or make them think we wanted to order, we didn’t leave the staircase.  Downstairs again, we walked down a hallway towards Kiek in de Kok but the door was either locked or we couldn’t figure out how to open it, so we turned around and worked our way back to the hotel.

Jaime and I were looking for dinner places on our phones and she found a highly rated one called “Rataskaevu 16” which sounded familiar to me.  I looked it up and realized that was the same address as our apartment’s original check-in location (if we had arrived earlier).  It was fate.  We walked the two blocks over had dinner there.  It was a highlight of the trip!  The service was the best I’ve ever had, the food was great (with amazing free pumpkin bread), and there was a small kids play area right next to our table.  After dinner, we realized there was only one part of Old Town that we hadn’t been to, so we had to check it out.  It had just started snowing which made for an extra special evening walk.

The next morning, the kids got up on their own but were a little fussy so I just picked up random pastries at a nearby bakery for breakfast, and then we hit the road shortly thereafter.  We left the major roads about half way through Estonia to aim towards our next destination.  The last 30 minutes within Estonia was pretty rough with snow and unplowed streets.  When we reached the Latvian border, which was also boarded up, the roads were suddenly plowed.

Cēsis, Latvia

Our next stop was the city of Cēsis that is entirely within the large Gauja National Park.  There are several old parts of the city though we focused primarily on the ruined castle in the middle of town.  We purchased tickets and were escorted into another room where they lit a candle and put it in a lantern for us.  That’s when we knew we were in for a treat!  The castle was gorgeous and there was no one else there so we had free reign of the place.  At one point another family showed up but they were only there for a couple minutes.  The lantern came in handy for a couple of dark rooms.  We didn’t make it to the darkest one as Lydia got too scared by the small dark spiral staircase leading up to it.  There was also a dungeon you can crawl down into though none of us opted to try.  On the way out we were directed to continue the tour in the new castle which we didn’t know was part of our ticket.  We were in kind of a hurry at this point so we only checked out the first floor and then climbed a lot of stairs to the tower platform which had great views of the ruined castle and surrounding city.

We had read about bobsledding and cable car rides elsewhere in the park.  We drove to the city where they were and discovered the bobsledding was closed this time of year and the land was flat all around us so the cable car was likely just up to a platform.  We were less excited about it then and it wasn’t in an obvious location, so we continued on to Riga.

Riga, Latvia

We checked into our hotel in Riga and wandered around to find a place for dinner.  It was surprisingly hard.  The Old Town was mostly made up of fancier (read: not kid-friendly) restaurants and bars.  Lydia and I actually went into one place to see if they were still serving dinner and it was a bar with no food at all!  After zigzagging a few blocks we decided to just eat at the restaurant attached to the hotel.  By this time, the kids were getting loopy and were fussy all throughout dinner.  We ate quickly and retired to the room.  Lydia then discovered that each end table had ear plugs so we knew we were in for a fun night.  It was indeed fairly loud with lots of partying going on.

The next morning we started by wandering around Old Town.  It’s very small and we ended up criss-crossing it a couple times as we would overshoot things we wanted to see and end up backtracking later.  On the other hand, the other part of Riga, known as the Quiet Centre, felt much larger than the map showed and walking around seemed to take forever.  We went to a part of Quiet Centre that is full of beautiful and ornate Art Nouveau architecture.  After hitting all the main sights, we stopped at a playground for the kids to play for a bit.  Next to the playground was a huge awesome statue of a monkey cosmonaut.

Afterward we walked back to Old Town to hit a couple more sights on the to-do list.  One cool stop is called Three Brothers.  It’s three buildings next to each other, all built in different eras with different architectural styles.  There was a guy seemingly watching us while “reading” a book.  We lost him and ended up in a plaza with other strange/creepy people that were caricatures of bad movie spies or mob lookouts.  When looking for them, they were all over Riga.  We stopped at a cafe called Black Magic during our walk and ended up having a great lunch at a place we couldn’t get into for dinner the night before called Petergailis.

We were then back on the road again, this time towards Lithuania!

Kaunas, Lithuania

The guidebook we used talked about a very unique museum in Lithuania’s second-largest city.  While we were on the road, we looked up the opening times and initially thought we’d arrive too late.  Turns out they were open late one night a week and this was it, so we had to check it out — it was the Devil’s Museum.  We got there 30 minutes before closing and were greeted by one of the three older ladies that run the museum.  It’s made up of a collection of devil statues, masks, toys, etc from around the world.  It’s quite a large collection that filled up good-sized rooms across three floors.  We made it out right at closing and continued on to Vilnius.

Vilnius, Lithuania

We arrived in Vilnius fairly late.  While Jaime got the kids’ pajamas on, I ran out to pick up dinner from a place down the street called Amatininkų Užeiga.  It was a bit cramped eating in the hotel room because we were on the top floor and had slanted ceilings but at least the food was good.

The next morning, we began our usual wandering of the Old Town.  We went down the main pedestrian shopping street, Pilies, to the Vilnius Castle Complex.  This area has a tower (which we went part way up before it became too steep), a large cathedral, a palace, and castle ruins on top of a steep hill.  Unfortunately the funicular was closed due to a landslide destabilizing the soil so we couldn’t tour the ruins.  While Tallinn’s Old Town is extremely well preserved and Riga’s was overrun by modern city life, Vilnius seemed like a perfect mix of old and new.  There are several large plazas surrounded by old buildings and modern restaurants.  Great old gates and alleys next to modern museums.

For lunch, we crossed a bridge into the Republic of Uzupis, a neighborhood that declared independence in 1997.  Though they are unrecognized by any governments, they have a president, cabinet, currency, flag, and constitution.  The constitution is translated into 23 languages and posted on large metal plates along a street in the middle of the republic.  After reading through the quirky articles of the constitution, we had a couple of amazing pizzas at Uzupio Picerija.  On the way out of the republic, we stopped at a bookstore, bought copies of the constitution, and got our passports stamped.

Next, we were off to Riga again in order to catch an early morning flight to Warsaw, Poland.  We stayed at a different hotel but still couldn’t find any good family-friendly restaurants and ended up ordering Pizza Hut.  We still had that bottle of wine from Tallinn and couldn’t bring it with us, so we drank it with dinner.  We had to leave for the airport about 5 hours later and we got stopped at a police checkpoint for DUIs.  It was quite amusing because I had no idea how to use a breathalyzer and the cop was speaking very fast Latvian to me.  Once I awkwardly requested English, he just said “blow, blow” and 10 seconds later we were back on track!

Warsaw, Poland

Upon arrival in Warsaw, we took a cab to Old Town but then discovered that check-in for the apartment we booked was actually over a mile away (I knew it was a separate location but the directions and addresses were confusing).  Luckily we found a cab quickly and made it to the office though it was too early to check in.  We found a nice cafe for breakfast and coffee while determining next steps.  I noticed that the massive and imposing Palace of Culture and Science was somewhat nearby so we went there and enjoyed the views from the 30th floor observation floor (note: signs all say XXX).  When then tried to find the Fotoplastikon (an old school stereoscopic theater) a block away.  We saw the building but no easy way to cross the street.  Once we realized we had to walk a few extra blocks to cross underground, we just decided to pass on it this time and continued back towards the apartment office.  We stopped at a “milk bar” which was on my to-do list — it’s nothing more than a cheap cafeteria though — and ate some crepes.

After checking in, we cab’d it back to the apartment (pre-paid by the company this time).  Our apartment’s location was top-notch.  Perfectly centered, overlooking the main Old Town Market Place.  After settling in, we headed up and around the north part of Old Town.  There are great city walls and watch towers along the way, all beautifully rebuilt after WWII.  We ventured a little bit out of Old Town to visit a memorial and wall portion of a horrific Jewish Ghetto that existed from 1940 to 1943 and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising Monument. We had a late lunch of pierogies at Zapiecek (of which there are several around Old Town).

We continued the walk around the outside of the city walls to the main entrance/plaza with the Royal Castle along one side and Sigismund’s Column in the middle.  Lydia and I went up to the top of a nearby building while Jaime and Edie skipped the stairs.  The views from the terrace were amazing.  We ended the evening with some street-side desserts and repacked our bags a bit.

The next morning we had breakfast at small cute place called TO LUBIĘ and then went off to the airport for an uneventful trip home.

 

 


Jamaica and Cuba

Posted by Ron on February 16th, 2017 filed in Travel
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Cuba has been on our list for a long time, both for its history and mystic as a closed (to us) country.  I’ve heard and read stories about people getting there easily via Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean but then you’d have to lie on your return immigration forms and it just didn’t feel right.  If you did get to go for charitable reasons, you couldn’t stray far from your mission or spend money freely.  That all changed about a year ago as Obama announced a restoration of diplomatic ties.  You still need an official reason for going but they were expanded and you no longer have to apply with the government for permission to travel — you just have to be prepared to be audited for up to 5 years after your trip.  As soon as this change occurred, we knew we wanted to go asap before the flood of other American tourists or before a new administration had the chance to change the rules of travel.

There were no direct flights from the US when we were searching (there are a few now out of Florida) so we could join a tour group or take a cruise.  The tour groups were all pretty pricey and are difficult with children, so we opted for the cruise.  Most cruise lines didn’t allow small children though, so we really only had one option — Celestyal Cruises, based out of Cyprus.  It was all-inclusive, both drinks and shore excursions!  We could join the boat at Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The cruise agent said that travel to Havana may be difficult and not guaranteed so she heavily suggested Jamaica, and we decided to play it safe.  We stayed in Montego Bay a day before and a day after the cruise as well.

Jamaica

We stayed at a hotel named El Greco.  It’s located on the ‘high’ road and the popular area, Hip Strip, was on the ‘low’ road.  We didn’t really have an agenda other than strolling Hip Strip.  The hotel provided free tickets to Doctor’s Cave Beach so we checked out towels and took a nearby elevator down to Hip Strip (after some zigzagging and spiral staircases, not easy with a stroller).

I was immediately offered drugs which I politely declined (I didn’t realize the stroller attracted dealers).  We continued down Hip Strip and were disappointed by all of the very pushy salespeople.  Nearly every store had someone outside asking people to come inside or braid your hair.  A few of the hotels along the strip were closed down.  It seems like Montego Bay is past its prime — I’m guessing Ocho Rios is the more popular port these days.  We stopped for dinner at Margaritaville at the end of Hip Strip.  The people there were very nice and the food was delicious.  There’s a multiple story water slide I was tempted to take but ultimately decided against when it started to drizzle.

On the walk back, we stayed on the hotel side of the street and mostly avoided the hawkers.  We arrived at Doctor’s Cave Beach a few minutes after they closed — it was still bright out so it was odd that they didn’t adjust their hours.  We went back to the hotel and swam in their pool, which had a gorgeous water view.  After swimming we enjoyed the sunset on the way back to the room.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, mainly because we didn’t see anything else nearby and weren’t overly excited to revisit Hip Strip.  We checked out towels again and decided to give Doctor’s Cave Beach another try.  We got in and were upsold on an umbrella and chairs.  The beach and swimming was wonderful.  It wasn’t crowded at all.  Someone mentioned later that it’s the 7th best beach in the world (I have not personally confirmed).  The kids had a great time too.  We enjoyed a post-swim drink on the beach before heading back and checking out of the hotel.

We took a taxi down to the cruise port and had an uneventful check-in.  The boat was pretty standard.  It was a bit on the smaller side, indicating it was likely a hand-me-down from the big cruise lines.  It held 1,200 people but only had 400 on board (another 250 or so would board in Havana).  This made it quite nice overall — no major lines, not overly crowded, and we got to see a lot of the same faces at various trivia events we attended.

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

We were provided tickets to our first tour without selecting one.  It seemed odd but not enough to question it at the time, especially since it was the one we would have picked anyway.  It was a bus tour that hit all of the area highlights.  The city was full of retro looking Soviet-style public art.  Our first big stop was a beautiful castle along the coast, El Morro (official name: Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca).  You can wander anywhere, including the roof with its expansive views of the area, and there were original cannons scattered throughout.

The next stop was a cultural one where we sat and watched locals dance and sing for about 45 minutes.  It was the most heavy-handed ‘cultural’ part of the cruise, which is required to qualify for the ‘people-to-people’ reason for travel to Cuba.  We then went to an older park with some Soviet-looking structures throughout and some statues of local heroes.  Nearby was an aging amusement park that had a great retro Ferris wheel (though not one that I’d personally ride).  Our last attraction of the tour was a massive statue surrounded by large spiked machetes in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square.

Next, we had a day at sea.  Upon inquiring about our options in Havana, we were told that Americans didn’t get to choose their excursions and that they were different than any of the ones listed.  That explains the lack of choice the day before!  It didn’t end up being a problem at all, but it was interesting that they were all designed so you didn’t have to spend a dime in Cuba if you didn’t want to.  The first trip went a bit long without any food options and it all made sense now.  This day at sea was also Christmas!  We had stockings for the kids with small presents to open in the morning and Santa was on the boat throughout the day.  The kids wrote letters to him and he gave all the kids on the boat (about a dozen) gifts.

Havana

Our first impression of Havana was a ruined pier next to the boat.  You can catch small glimpses of rooftops and spires further inland.  The pier is in an amazing location — you exit right into a great plaza surrounded by old buildings and popular restaurants.  We had two full days in Havana, including an overnight, and the excursions were scheduled as two the first day and one on the second morning.

The morning tour was a walking tour throughout the north end of Old Havana.  Havana is made for strolling around — so much amazing architecture from several different centuries and the old classic 50s cars driving everywhere (there are about 150,000 left and a vast majority seemed to be taxis now).  The two biggest stops were Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza de Armas.  In the later one, there is a unique book market and we split up to tackle different areas.  When I ran into Jaime and Edie, Jaime pointed out that a man was following Lydia and I around and appeared to be drawing us.  I was completely oblivious to it!  He showed us the picture and asked if we’d pay for it.  I gave him $2 and he went on to the next group of tourists.  Jaime and I liked it so much, I hunted him down and commissioned him to draw Jaime and Edie for $10.  We later saw many other artists drawing other tourists, so it wasn’t a completely unique experience but I do think we had the best artist.  We swung by a Ernest Hemingway haunt, and creator of the mojito, Le Bodeguita Del Medio.  It was too crowded to get inside.  On the walk back to the boat, we ran into a parade of performers on stilts.  They were surrounded by people collecting tips for them as they performed tricks and dances.  It was more surreal than it sounds in writing.

After lunch on the boat, we took a bus tour in the afternoon.  We stopped by the Capital, which was under construction, and took some great pictures of old cars driving by a row of very colorfully painted houses.  We then stopped at Plaza de la Revolucion, which is essentially a very large empty parking lot with large murals on area buildings and a memorial tower.  There is also a parking strip of old cars and the drivers are all very friendly — you can take whatever pictures you want, including getting in the cars or asking to see the engine!  The tour ended up a market which we wandered for a while, and bought a cigar box, before skipping the bus and walking back to the port.

For the evening, we spent more time walking around.  The streets were filled with others doing the same, but it was not overly crowded.  The city is beautiful at night.  All the plazas and streets were lit up.  We stopped at a chocolate museum for some hot chocolate and toast before going to dinner at a place I found called La Vitrola.  There were quite a few people waiting in front of us.  The nice host said he would get us in earlier because of the kids.  I think we ended up only getting in one table earlier, and that group was not happy about it.  The host took it all in stride though.  The food was good and there was live entertainment throughout dinner.  We ordered a fried cheese curd appetizer and it came with a little American flag.  A nice little reminder of home.

The next morning Lydia woke up with an upset stomach.  While Jaime went to grab breakfast, Lydia and I went to the doctor on board to get some medicine.  Jaime stayed behind with Lydia for the morning tour.  The first bus stop was within a neighborhood where a local artist completely redid his house with spires, twists, and turns with colorful tiles.  He also added similar art throughout the entire neighborhood.  Edie passed out just before arriving so we just enjoyed it from the outside.  Our next stop was the Revolution Museum which is located in the former president’s palace.  It was full of history of the communist revolution and the only anti-US propaganda we saw.  The palace still has bullet holes all over the place from when it was stormed by Fidel’s people.  In the back, there are many vehicles used during the takeover.

We then returned to the boat and switched kids.  Jaime and Edie went out wandering around while I stayed behind with a groggy Lydia.  Jaime and I had plans to meet in the main plaza by the port at a certain time if Lydia was up for it.  She slept most of the day.  Once she got up though, she felt completely better.  We met at the rendezvous point and took two old 50s cars on a tour around the city.  It was great fun, and highly recommended.

The following day was at sea and this time Edie got the upset stomach.  Since Lydia was able to sleep it off, we just let Edie relax and sleep all day and she was fine by the next morning too.

Cienfuegos

Our last stop in Cuba was in Cienfuegos.  We took a bus tour around the city.  The first stop was at an art gallery that featured maybe 8-10 artists and they each had a room or a wall with their work.  One wall in particular blew us away.  We ended up buying a painting from the artist himself (Mario Alexander Cruz Moscoso) and are kicking ourselves that we didn’t get two.  The next stop was a full city block of ornately painted houses, music, and various performance artists.  The street and concepts were founded by a locally famous artist, but no idea if he was there or is still active in the day-to-day.  Lydia had a flower painted on her cheek by a random person walking around.

We then made a quick stop at an old palace and hotel along the coast.  Most rich areas were taken over by the government but it’s not clear what they own or not.  We were told several times that there are no rich people in Cuba anymore but then we’d see very nice large houses scattered around.  There were definitely affluent neighborhoods which were converted into public housing or government offices.  Not sure if that was actively still occurring or if it was mostly just after the revolution.  The tour ended walking down a long pedestrian boulevard lined with shops and ended in a massive plaza surrounded by more shops and museums.  We visited one of the museums and discussed local history before heading back to the boat.

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed Cuba.  It’s extra special because how different and close it is.  We highly recommend anyone visit before American companies start investing heavily, though it’s not clear how much the Cuban government will let them build (as they are known for nationalizing prolific businesses).  One thing we never fully figured out was how communism works.  It seems to boil down to a minimum amount of food (mainly rice and produce) and maximum amount of salary.  The locals have a separate currency provided by the government to use for those basic goods.  The tourist currency, called cucs, is pinned to the Euro, and it seems like most locals work in service jobs or markets to earn cucs for non-essential items or additional food when the basic items run out (which we heard often happens three weeks into the month).

Montego Bay

Back in Jamaica, we spent another night in Montego Bay, this time at Toby Resort.  Our cab driver from the cruise port offered to give us a tour on the way to the hotel and since Jaime’s parents and sister had to catch a plane in a few hours, we decided to take him up on it.  He drove us through the downtown area, talked about local heroes, then drove us into the mountains to drive by a local witch’s old mansion and stop at a nice hotel with an amazing view of the city and coastline.

After the tour, we parted ways with Jaime’s family at the airport and went back to the hotel.  We had lunch at the hotel and then went for a swim.  They had a couple different pools on site.  We intended to go to the closer one but there was a strange woman they kept staring at us so we walked a bit farther and had the less convenient pool all to ourselves.  Not seeing any nearby restaurants online and not wanting to face the gauntlet of shopkeepers, we ordered Domino’s pizza.

The next morning we decided to go to Doctor’s Cave Beach again.  This hotel was at the end of Hip Strip and it was about a 10 minute walk to the beach.  We spent a few relaxing hours there before heading back to shower, checkout, and head to the airport.  Believe it or not, there’s a premium departure lounge at the airport and it’s the #1 attraction in Montego Bay.  It’s a little expensive but cheaper for departures than arrivals so we decided to give it a shot.  You get fast-tracked through security and then after walking to the lounge itself, you get directed to one of three large rooms.  There you get a free wifi, open bar, and a buffet of good finger foods.  After chugging a few beers and filling up on food, we headed to our gate for the flight home.

Next trip is to Denmark, all three Baltic states, and Poland in a couple weeks!


Great American Road Trip

Posted by Ron on July 27th, 2016 filed in Travel
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Jaime’s extended family has a reunion every other year hosted by a different branch of the family tree in a different part of the country.  This year it was hosted at the campground in West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside of Yellowstone National Park.  We originally planned to drive out with our camper but after a friend warned me about mountain driving and we realized it would require a few extra days off work we decided to forego it this time.  Instead we rented a more fuel-efficient car for the long drive out and then flew back from Salt Lake City.

While trying to figure out the best route out West, I discovered a web site (and app) called RoadTrippers that shows you attractions/hotels/etc along the way within a certain number of miles off your route.  It was great to find a lot of quirky stops along the way to help break up the long stretches of flat land.  We had planned to stay in the middle of nowhere the first night but ultimately came to the conclusion that it was worth a longer drive the first day to stay in a real city the first night.

We started at around 6am on a Saturday.  Our first stop was a Fiberglass Mold Graveyard that had no signage of any kind — it was just piles of old fiberglass molds next to an auto body shop.  I don’t think it gets many visitors as the mechanic working seemed surprised when we pulled up and asked if we could look around.  It was a completely random collection and very unique to see.  Worth a stop.  Next up was the iconic Spam Museum.  It has actually relocated very recently to a small downtown area.  Everything was very shiny and new.  Very well done, lots of exhibits and quirky, hip photo-ready spots.  Also a great kids play area and gift shop.  Last stop for the day was a Jolly Green Giant statue in the middle of nowhere.  Very quick stop as there’s nothing to do besides snap a couple of pictures.  Would be a good stop for a picnic lunch next time.

We arrived in Sioux Falls right before dinner time.  Jaime has a couple friends in the area so we took up their recommendation and ate at Fiero Pizza.  It’s a counter service place but the pizzas were delicious!  Sioux Falls has a great main road through town that is meant for strolling — there is a lot of art scattered along both sides of the street.  We stopped at a pastry place for some dessert as well.  Afterward, we went back to the hotel and when the kids went to sleep, I sneaked out to a bar called Monks House of Ale Repute, based on the name alone.  They had really good beer that they make on-site.

The next morning we took a long walk along the river to Falls Park and enjoyed the wide and long series of waterfalls that the city is named for.  There is a visitors center with a tower that you can go up for free and get a better view.  We then went back to the hotel and packed up for the next long day.  On the way out of town, we stopped at a Sunken Garden I read about but it was a bust and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Our first stop was just outside of town, a ghost town called 1880 Cowboy Town.  The reviews I read said it was extremely cheesy, not well maintained, and most exhibits were broken.  I knew we had to check it out!  There was a large buffalo herd outside which was our first encounter with them so it was fun.  Within the ghost town itself, the reviews were accurate and it was an amusing train wreck.  It looks like nothing had been touched since the 70s.  There were about 15 buildings along a single street.  Some had “working” old school animatronics though they were too quiet too hear, some had missing buttons so you couldn’t attempt to start them, and some just had piles of leftover parts within them.  There was an watch tower to climb for a better view.  Jaime didn’t want to go up the death trap but it actually looked like the only thing kept up to date so Lydia and I checked it out.

A few hours down the road we went to the Porter Sculpture Park, a collection of very strange and unique industrial art sculptures done by a single person.  Edie was sleeping so Jaime went by herself and while she was touring, the owner/sculptor came over and let me know that Lydia and I could tour for free once she was done.  Definitely check out the link with pictures as I can’t begin to describe them.  Highly recommended stop!  On the way out, a friendly cop stopped me and claimed I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily it was just a quick scolding and he let us go on our way.

Next stop was another few hours down the highway, the Corn Palace.  A coworker had recommended skipping since it’s not actually made out of corn but others said it was a must-see.  We would not recommend it.  While the outside is kind of cool for its art made out of corn covering all of the walls, it was pretty far off the highway and there’s nothing to do inside.  It’s basically a local sports venue that has a pseudo flea market on the main floor and an 8th grade science fair all about corn on the second floor.  Last stop of the day was the famous Wall Drug store, known for a lot of billboards leading up to it and having tons and tons of souvenirs to buy.  We had a quick dinner there since it was the only thing we could find open before heading to our hotel for the night.

Our hotel, the Cedar Pass Lodge, is actually located within the Badlands National Park.  We had half of a fairly large cabin and it was amazing to wake up within the park and see the geological formations right out the window.  We backtracked a little bit for our first stop at the Minuteman Missile Site, D-9.  It was hard to find information on hours and once there it became clear why — it’s a very small site with no visitor center and just a loosely chained fence that you squeeze into it.  There is a sign with a phone number you can call for a ‘walking tour’ which we did.  It’s just a single missile standing vertically underground and an antenna to be controlled remotely.  Missile sites like these were all over the country during the Cold War and intentionally in the middle of nowhere in case they were attacked.  After the war ended, all sites were closed except for this one as a historic reminder.  The rest of the morning was spent slowly driving the length of the Badlands and stopping at most overlooks.  I had been here as a kid but it was much more impressive as an adult.  The formations are so massive and expansive it’s mind-boggling.  Well worth the scenic drive.

Good friends of ours ended up doing a somewhat similar road trip to ours the week before.  They were just wrapping up and heading back as we were venturing west.  We met in the middle at Wind Cave National Park.  After a picnic lunch where both families kids were having a blast together, we took a tour of one of the several caves available.  We opted for the one with less stopping to keep the kids moving.  Little did we know that it was mostly single-file walking so we didn’t get to chit-chat as much as we thought we would.  Still a great stop that we all enjoyed.  We went together as a group to Crazy Horse as well.  We toured the visitors center and took in the large, unfinished carving.  Hopefully they get the funds to finish it at some point.  We then parted ways with our friends and continued our road trips in opposite directions.

For us, the next stop was Mount Rushmore.  It is much bigger than you’d think.  We learned that the shape of it and the directions the presidents are looking were driven largely by where solid rock was found and where cracks were exposed.  As we were walking out, we ran into Jaime’s cousin!  Note that we were 700 miles and several days away from the reunion we were all attending.  We went our separate ways after a quick chat and then headed to Cosmos Mystery Area as a treat for Lydia who was doing great on the trip.  It’s mostly comprised of a tilted cabin that messes with your head and they perform several different mind-bending illusions in and around the cabin.  Jaime and I volunteered for one of them and it was pretty surreal.  Go in with a silly and open mind to enjoy it.  We ended the night in Deadwood at a lodge with a casino, where I gambled a bit.

The next morning we crossed into Wyoming and visited Devils Tower.  It’s a large rock formation sticking out of the ground surrounded by flat lands.  It was very sunny and hot so we only hiked around about a quarter of it but it was a great introduction to beautiful Wyoming.  Driving through the state was a pleasure.  One particular stretch in the Wind River Canyon area just outside of Thermopolis was the most scenic drive I can recall.  We stopped in Thermopolis for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.  They have a dig site nearby but we had just missed the last tour of the day.  We weren’t too upset though because the heat was unbearable.  We toured the museum which is basically just a large warehouse and were quite impressed by the quantity and setup.  It’s a mix of replicas and real fossils but they are clear on what’s what and where all of the fossils were found.  We had a quick meal at the Cowboy Cafe in Dubois before finishing the road trip to Jackson Hole for the night.

The next morning we went to downtown Jackson and took a stagecoach tour of the area.  The kids loved it.  Afterward, we took the Aerial Tram from nearby Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain.  The views from the top were incredible.  You could see the tops of the Tetons and there were mountains on all sides.  We were high up enough to still have snow too.  Lydia wasn’t having as much fun as I was so we didn’t stay up there very long.  Still well worth the quick visit.  We had lunch in Teton Village before heading north to take the scenic route through Grand Teton National Park.  This was another beautiful drive and we stopped at a couple places along the way.  We arrived in West Yellowstone, MT for the reunion in the evening and met up with Jaime’s family for dinner.

The first day we decided to see if there was any possible last minute whitewater rafting trips we could take.  We found a place in Big Sky, MT which was farther than more popular places but closer time-wise (traffic in Yellowstone is slow and painful).  Jaime’s parents graciously volunteered to watch the kids for a few hours so off we went with Jaime’s sister.  The tour company seemed a bit disorganized and we ended up leaving about 45 minutes late.  The rapids were great though and it was an awesome experience!

The following day we spent entirely within Yellowstone National Park.  We did the lower loop road and visited Midway Geyser Basin with the Grand Prismatic Spring (amazing), Black Sands Geyser Basin, Old Faithful (of course), and Artist Point (quick photo op).  We arrived just in time for the communal dinner with everyone.

Our last full day was planned to be the upper loop road to see the Norris Geyser Basin and the Mammoth Terraces but we decided to save them for next time.  Instead, we walked around downtown West Yellowstone, shopped a bit, ate lunch, and then headed back towards the campground.  A few miles past the campground was a historic site called Earthquake Lake where a massive landslide cut off a river to form the lake and covered a different campground in the middle of the night.  28 people died in the landslide and you can see trees sticking out of the water where the campground once was.  Also, several cabins were lifted up and moved down the river.  We hiked about a mile out to see what’s left of the cabins in the middle of a large field, far from where they were.  Back at our campground, Lydia was itching to go on a boat ride.  Unfortunately it was too windy to rent a boat but fortunately they recognized our dilemma and let Lydia and Jaime’s sister go on a boat with life jackets and just sway back and forth for a simulated boat ride experience.

The next morning, we left before sunrise for the five hour drive to Salt Lake City where we were flying out of.  In hindsight, we probably should have flown out of Bozeman (an hour away) but SLC was much cheaper at the time.  The flight home was uneventful.  Overall, it was a great trip.  Very different from our usual travel style (again; see last blog post).  All of the stops along the way made it an interesting experience and the kids were champs on the long haul.

Next up, our biannual trip to Maine!

 


Ireland and Northern Ireland

Posted by Ron on April 24th, 2016 filed in Travel
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So Jaime had a week of vacation carried over from last year that she had to use or lose by the end of March.  Clearly that meant we needed to leave the country.  Because of how well the kids did in South America due to similar times we were looking at Central America or the Caribbean initially but the Zika virus scared us away.  We had an extra timeshare week to use so we just browsed all available trading options around the world and Ireland jumped out at us.  Typically timeshares don’t align with our travel style for two reasons: 1) we don’t stay in one place for a week straight, and 2) they are usually located outside of major cities and require a car rental.  The Ireland timeshare was perfect because it was centrally located and we wanted to see a lot of sights around the country.  We added in an overnight in Belfast in the middle of the week to cover the whole island and add a new country.

We took an overnight flight hoping the kids would sleep, but of course Lydia didn’t sleep a wink.  When we arrived, we were exhausted.  It’s about a 90 minute drive to the timeshare, the 13th century Knocktopher Abbey.  They left the keys in an envelope outside for us since we arrived before reception opened but the kids were passed out so we all took a nap in the car for a couple hours.  After unloading the car, we decided to hit a couple local sights and get to bed early.  The first stop was the Dunmore Caves.  Edie was still sleeping so only Lydia and I went in.  The caves were unique in that they were not very deep or far from the outside.  It was more like walking under a hanging cliff after walking down 700 stairs outside.  Our next stop was the nearest big city Kilkenny.  It is a great city and encapsulates everything you picture about an Irish city — old, charming, colorful, and quaint.  We toured the very impressive, completely restored castle and grounds before having dinner and an amazing dessert at Langton’s, a place recommended by a coworker.  A quick 15 minute drive back to the abbey and we slept like rocks.

Our first driving day’s target was Galway on the west coast.  I had planned stops along the way to and from each city to break up the drive.  After a roadside drive-by visit to Ballaghmore Castle, we went to the first official stop, Birr Castle.  The castle is still a private residence but you can walk the grounds which includes the Great Telescope (the largest in the world for 70 years), beautiful gardens, and a kid’s play area that Lydia thoroughly enjoyed.  In Galway, we wandered around all of the pedestrian areas on and around High Street.  We stopped for lunch at the most Irish-sounding place, McSwiggan’s, which we later found out is a well-known and highly recommended place.  After some more walking around, we left to reach our next destination before sunset.  It ended up being much closer than we thought.  When we arrived at Clonmacnoise, a 6th century monastery, it was seemingly closed and the sun was nearly set.  I jumped from the car and snapped what pictures I could.  Within 5 minutes, it was too dark for pictures, but the ruins were quite a sight to see.  The walls have collapsed in very strange ways; we’ll definitely have to explore more next time.

The next day we headed to the southwest towards Cork.  The first stop along the way is marketed as the most visited site in Ireland (even though I’d never heard of it), Rock of Cashel.  It’s an impressive set of ruins on the top of a hill with great views, an old cemetery, and another ruin next door.  After that we continued to Cahir Castle, one of the largest in Ireland.  We practically had the entire castle to ourselves which made it an extra special stop.  In Cork, we just walked around a bit.  It felt very similar to Galway but I think Galway’s pedestrian areas are more extensive.  We had read about an old market called the English Market but it was mostly fresh meats and produce so there wasn’t much for us to do there.  They do have an amazing restaurant along the balcony in one area called Farmgate Cafe where we ate lunch.  Last stop of the day was the famous Blarney Castle.  I had expected it to be extremely touristy though it wasn’t at all.  The grounds are massive but since it was late in the day the ticket taker recommended that we head straight to the castle.  The castle itself is more beautiful than I imagined.  It’s a large hallowed-out tower and the famous stone you kiss is along one side of the top.  An old man holds your leg as you dangle off the edge (there is also a metal grate under your head).  Lydia didn’t like the narrow spiral staircases to get to the top so Jaime went by herself and did not kiss the stone.  After she came back down and traded spots with me, I went up and did it.  Once Jaime saw my cool pictures taken by the castle, she rushed back up to do it before they closed.

Up until today, we had been making a simple breakfast at the abbey since we weren’t in any rush and to save some money.  Today was the day we were driving to Belfast though so we wanted to hit the road asap.  I googled for a random mid-sized city between Kilkenny and Dublin and then searched for best breakfast there.  The city was Carlow but it turns out that the best two places online were out of business so we stopped at the only open business in town — BeaNice.  Luckily for us, it was actually an excellent quiant cafe.  About an hour north of Dublin we stopped at a 5,000 year old prehistoric monument called Newgrange.  It’s a very large circle-shaped monument built out of stones that has been recently restored.  I had seen a few pictures of the outside online but had no idea that you can actually go inside and to the center where there are incredible carved rooms and shapes (no pictures allowed).  Onwards to Belfast after the hour-long tour there.  There are no border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Just a single small sign that says “Northern Ireland – the sign numbers are in miles”.  So much for a new passport stamp!

Upon arrival in Belfast, it felt noticeably grittier than any of the other cities we’ve been to.  I had foolishly mentioned how the west side of the city was dangerous which spooked Jaime a bit too.  My goal in Belfast was to see the wall murals along the tense border and Jaime’s was to see the Titanic museum.  Unfortunately, it was around 4pm when we arrived and we had missed the last hop-on hop-off tour and the museum would stop new entries by the time we’d arrive there.  We pondered what to do with the remainder of the day.  Jaime was against a self-tour of the murals and it was looking gloomy for walking around downtown.  Just then, a black cab drove by and I remembered the tour my sister and neighbors highly recommended.  I had thought it wouldn’t be possible with the kids so I hadn’t considered it but when I asked the hotel concierge about it, it wasn’t an issue at all.  A cab arrived for us within 5 minutes and we had no idea what to expect.  It ended up being the most fascinating, information-dense 90 minutes ever.  The murals and stories behind them are extremely interesting.  The gates between Catholics and Protestant neighborhoods still close every night.  The Catholics want to be part of Ireland and fly the Irish flag while the Protestants want to be part of Britain and fly the British flag.  This causes an identity crisis for Northern Ireland itself.  I’m sure they have their own national flag but we never saw one.  The cab dropped us off downtown where we ate dinner and walked back to the hotel.

The next morning we started off at the Titanic museum.  It was very well done and well worth the visit.  We then set off to see a few sights along the northern coast.  We took a slight detour to a place I read about called The Dark Hedges.  It’s hard to describe so take a look at those pictures to fully appreciate it.  Next up was a spot Jaime’s friend recommended, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.  It is literally just a rope bridge but the area is gorgeous and you have to hike out to the bridge and get to soak up the views along the way.  Once over the bridge, you can explore a small fishing island as well.  It was very chilly and windy so we didn’t stay too long but it was still a great stop.  After that we went to the most well known natural attraction in Northern Ireland, Giant’s Causeway.  The area where the unique interlocking columns are is relatively small and about a 20 minute walk from the visitor center.  There was also a semi-regualar bus that was about a Euro each direction.  We opted for the bus as we hadn’t fully warmed up from the last stop.  While on the bus, Edie made it known that she demanded a diaper change immediately, which couldn’t happen until we were back at the car.  About two minutes after arriving, Lydia saw a tiny worm and demanded to leave immediately too.  Needless to say, we didn’t get to explore much of the area and just waited for the next bus back.  Another short drive away we made a brief stop at the Bushmills Distillery where I picked up some fresh whiskey.  They were closing so we didn’t have a chance to do the tour.  The last planned stop, Dunluce Castle, had just closed too so we couldn’t tour it but it was the most extravagant castle we’d seen yet.  It was mostly built on a small mountain loosely attached to the mainland via bridge and more castle ruins.  Did I mention there is a cave entrance at the base of the mountain that goes under the castle?  Definitely need to plan on visiting this part of the coastline earlier next time.  We had a hard time finding a restaurant open that wasn’t extremely crowded.  I ended up stopping at a grocery store and asking a local for recommendations.   He recommended the Central Wine Bar in Ballycastle, and I’m so glad he did — the ambiance was great and the food was incredible!  It was an uneventful 4 hour drive back to the abbey after that.

Originally we had planned on our last day at the timeshare being a trip to Limerick, a few castles around there, and the famous Cliffs of Moher, though after seeing the similar cliffs along the northern coastline, I decided it wouldn’t be worth 7 hours of driving.  We will save those, plus the Ring of Kerry, for next time.  Our first stop of the day were the exquisite ruins of Jerpoint Abbey.  The caretaker there spoke highly of nearby Kells Priory so we went there next.  Edie was sleeping so we took turns walking to and around the 7 towers and viewing the castle ruins within the walls connecting the towers.  Afterward, we tried to find Santa Claus’ (St. Nicholas) grave but it’s located on private property and it apparently wasn’t open for the year yet.  Next, we drove about 30 minutes south to the coastal city of Waterford.  Being Good Friday in a Catholic country, nearly everything was closed.  We wanted around a bit, had lunch at a cafe within a public music venue, and then toured the Waterford Crystal factory.  We drove along the South East Coastal Road for a bit but it was more near the coast instead of actual coastline so we headed back to Kilkenny for dinner.  We ended up back at Langton’s to have that amazing dessert again.  We didn’t realize that the more well-known restaurant is tucked away from the street and that apparently we just ate from the bar menu last time.  The full menu and ‘real’ restaurant were a great end to the evening.

We checked out of the timeshare the next morning and headed to Dublin.  It was a crazy busy weekend there as people were celebrating both Easter and the 100 year anniversary of the start of the revolution for independence.  We couldn’t find a place for lunch on the way to Trinity College so I stopped in a random hotel and they recommended M.J. O’Neills near the entrance to the college.  It was the craziest restaurant experience in recent memory — insanely busy, first-come tables across 4-5 tiered floors, and counter-service ordering.  After lunch, we wandered around the college campus and saw the Book of Kells in the Old Library.  The book was cool to see but the build-up to see it was more than the book itself.  The Long Room after the book viewing was well worth the price of admission.  200,000 books lined the walls along two floors.  Check out the college pictures to see it.  We wandered around Dublin for the rest of the afternoon, including a brief stop at St. Stephen’s Green, before meeting an old law school friend of Jaime’s for dinner.  The next morning we left pretty early to catch our flight home, which went off without a hitch.

Overall we had an amazing trip.  It was a totally different type of vacation for us.  We didn’t have much of a schedule, stayed in one place for nearly the whole week, and used it as a base to explore more than we would have seen otherwise.  We are used to knocking out whole countries in a couple days so it surprised us that we spent an entire week and didn’t even cover everything we had planned to do.

Up next is a road trip to Yellowstone in June!


Easter Island and Peru

Posted by Ron on February 28th, 2016 filed in Travel
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I’ve always wanted to go to Easter Island growing up because of the mystic and mystery surrounding the moai statues.  My in-laws were originally planning a trip to South Africa but weren’t very excited about it.  After thinking through all of their previous travels, they decided to revisit Easter Island, where they had both been about five years ago.  They invited us along and added Peru where my father-in-law had spent a few months around his college years.

Door-to-door from Chicago to Hanga Roa, Easter Island was a whopping 28 hours.  We connected through Miami where we met up with my in-laws (including my sister-in-law) and then stopped again in Santiago, Chile.  Easter Island is about a five and a half hour flight from Santiago.  The kids took the lengthy travel very well.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by the hotel owner who presented us each with a fresh flower leis.  That first day we just checked into the hotel, picked up our rental car, and went out to dinner.

The next morning we got up and left around 5:00am in order to catch sunrise over one of the most famous collection of moai.  The island is relatively small [see map] so it’s very easy to get around and return back to Hanga Roa for meals or breaks.  It was a 30 minute race against the sun to Tongariki.  We made it there just in time and stayed around until the sun was completely up.  The 15 large moai were incredible to see and it made for a great introduction to our experience on the island.  Our original plan was to work our way back to the city as Tongariki was the farthest place to go east.  We quickly discovered that we had forgotten to bring any water and would need to eat before doing much else so we started back towards the hotel.  On the way back, we made a quick stop at a large moai on the side of the road known as Te Ara O Te Moai, and again at a larger platform of knocked over moai called Akahanga.  I was the only one to get out of the car at Akahanga since we were in a hurry so I snapped a few pictures and convinced everyone else to come back and explore more another day.

After lunch, we decided to drive northeast across the island to see the sights along the north coast.  Our first stop was Anakena which has a great sand beach, tons of palm trees, and two platforms of restored moai.  A couple of us took our shoes off and spent some time playing in the surf.  This was definitely the most relaxing stop on the island and likely would be full of tourists at high season.  Our next stop along the coast was Te Pito Kura.  This is the largest moai ever stood up — it’s over 30 feet tall and weighs 80 tons!  Nearby there is also a large round stone called the Naval of the World.

Our last stop of the day before dinner was Rano Raraku, also known as The Quarry.  This is the iconic place where there are hundreds of moai heads sitting on and around a mountain of volcanic rock.  It was so amazing to see these in person.  For a long time it was assumed that these were intentionally just heads but upon further investigation and excavation it was discovered that there are full moai bodies underground.  This mountain is where all moai statue originated from.  The locals, Rapa Nui, carved the full statues out of the mountain side (length-wise, facing up), dug giant pits, cut out the bottom, slid them down the hill into the pits, and then intricately carved their backs.  The eyes would not be carved until the statue was upright on it’s final place on the designated platform.  All of these hundreds of heads are simply abandoned carving projects where the pits filled up with dirt over time.  It’s crazy to think of the amount of people working on this many statues and what must have happened to stop all development and leave them as-is.

Our second full day started off by seeing the sights on the interior of the island.  Nearly all of the moai are lining the coasts, facing inwards so there isn’t much to see besides farms and unused land in the middle of the island.  Our first step was at the underwhelming NASA Facility that was built to help detect earthquakes and tsunamis.  It’s been abandoned for a couple decades now and while the guidebook we were using said you can go inside, it was fenced off and locked.  Our first real stop was at Puna Pau, a smaller volcanic mountain where the rock is red.  This is where all of the large hats, called topknots, were carved for the moai.  It was seemingly a later additional to the statues as only a couple hundred out of 1,200 total, had these hats.  Similar to The Quarry, you could see some being carved from the mountainside and several mostly done on the side of the mountain awaiting the trip to their final destination.  These hats were enormous and no one is sure how it was possible to lift these on top of the large moai, especially since they were balanced on a small groove only a couple centimeters deep!

Our next step farther into the interior was a restored platform of seven moai called Akivi.  There are some who say that these moai are unique in that they are looking towards the ocean but it’s hard to know if they are intended to be any different from others since they are so far into the interior.  They could have been overlooking a tribe between them and the coast.  Past Akivi is a very rough dirt road that our car rental place said we were not allow to go down.  On maps of the island the road either isn’t shown at all or it’s a dashed line.  Hopefully it gets paved before our next visit as there are many more moai and several caves in that direction that we weren’t able to see.  On our way back towards Hanga Roa, we stopped at a single restored moai called Huri A Urenga.  We intended to stop there first but couldn’t find it — it’s hidden behind a treeline and there is only a small entrance in the stone wall lining the street to get into there.  It’s on a large platform that you can walk all the way around.

After lunch, we went back to the east end of the island to see Tongariki again while the sun was on the other side of the moai.  It was definitely a different experience that I would recommend.  At this time of day you can see a lot more detail on the moai themselves, both carvings and color differences.  Heading back west we all stopped at Anakena this time.  It was one of my favorite spots because you can get extremely close to the moai.  We also walked along the coast a little farther to see a single knocked over moai that fell in such a way that it’s protected from the elements and you can make out much more detail than other statues.  A little bit further down the coast is a small cave we explored before heading back to the car.  There is actually another platform with additional moai if you walk another 10-15 minutes down the coast but we decided to save that for next time as it was very hot and sunny.  We ended the day with dinner and watching the sunset over a few platforms of moai near our hotel called Tahai.  We definitely weren’t the only people with this idea but it wasn’t overly crowded and ended up being a highlight of the trip.

Our last day on Easter Island was spent exploring the south western corner of the island.  We started off with a brief stop at the edge of an old volcano, called Rano Kao, looking down at the crater lake that has formed within.  Farther down the same road we arrived at Orongo, a stone village consisting of over 50 restored oval houses.  Based on the lack of resources on the edge of a volcano, it’s not believed to have been a residential area.  There are many carvings around the village that point to it being central to a ‘birdman’ cult that had rituals and annual contests there.  The views all around are great and you can really feel how isolated you are on the island from up there.

The next stop was a bit hard to find, both from the road and even from the parking lot.  There was a small shop selling souvenirs that led us in the right direction.  After walking a couple blocks through an empty field with benches that looks like it’s ready for large groups, we get to the coast and down a winding staircase to Ana Kai Tangata, a series of cave paintings, nearly all of the birdman figure.  The ceiling of the cave has been starting to collapse in recent years so you can’t get too far into the cave and there are only about a half dozen visible paintings remaining.  The ocean views from the cave and staircase are a bonus.

Next, we drove east down the main road to find a platform of knocked down moai that we had driven past a couple times but couldn’t find the entrance.  Turns out the entrance is a little ways down the road so it wasn’t obvious.  Turning in at the sign that says Viahu and driving over rough road and grass you come to a pseudo parking lot next to a farmhouse.  It felt like someone’s backyard, and it probably was, but it was the only way to the moai so it had to be the right place.  Here there are eight moai and a half dozen topknots, some of which had rolled pretty far from the platform.  There is also a large circle of stones in front, thought to be used for ceremonies that kids threw to honor their parents.  A nice surprise at this stop is an expansive black volcanic coast on the back-side of the platform.  We had a lot of fun exploring the area, watching the waves crash along the coast, and jumping over tiny streams running throughout the rocks.

Our last stop was at one of the more well known places called Vinapu.  It consists of two platforms that each have a few knocked over moai and topknots nearby.  While it sounds repetitive and may get old, we actually loved finding new moai to explore.  They were each unique and conjured up feelings of mystery and made you imagine being in the shoes of the rapa nui people.  What made this location special was that the platforms were the best preserved on the island and the stones were aligned nearly perfectly, similar to other ruins in South America.  There were also several moai heads lying in the grass face up so you can get extremely close.  There is also a unique statue here which was thought to be two-headed and completely different from the moai.  Nowadays it looks like a short pole with barely visible hands carved into the sides.

That was it for Easter Island.  We had an amazing time and it ranks as one of our favorite trips ever.  The isolation, lack of tourists, accessibility of the moai, mystic of its past all made for a one-of-a-kind experience.  You really feel as if you can ignore/avoid the world’s problems out there.  One thing I didn’t mention, mostly because I didn’t keep track of the specific places, is the food.  We were spoiled with delicious food at every meal and didn’t really have to wait anywhere even with our large group.  Lastly, I can’t recommend the book we used highly enough.  If you plan on visiting the island, it’s a must-have.

Our flight from Easter Island left after midnight, bounced through Santiago, and finally landed in Lima, Peru.  We stayed at a hotel in the Miraflores area of the city.  It was Christmas day so most things were closed.  We did lunch at the hotel, went for a swim, relaxed, and had dinner at a Swiss/Peruvian restaurant a few blocks away.

The next morning my father-in-law went to visit the neighborhood he stayed in 30 years ago while Lydia and I went to ruins in the middle of Miraflores called Huaca Pucllana.  Most of the ruins were just unrecognizable piles of bricks but the restored section is very impressive.  It feels very out of place because it’s surrounded by the hustling and bustling city.  We didn’t get to tour the restored area since you have to wait for a guided tour which was 20 minutes away and we had to head to the airport.

The flight to Cuzco/Cusco was uneventful but upon arrival our driver was not waiting for us as expected.  After about 15 minutes he showed up while I was calling the hotel from a military officer’s cell phone.  Most people that visit Machu Picchu stay in Cusco but we decided against it because we didn’t know how the altitude would affect us and the kids.  Cusco is at a much higher elevation than Machu Picchu and you can’t drive directly to the closest city, so we stayed at a city in between the two, both in distance and elevation, called Ollantaytambo for three nights.

Ollantaytambo ended up being another highlight of the trip.  We had no idea what to expect and had no idea it’s the last living Incan city.  It is all cobblestone streets and walled pedestian alleys off of the main road through town.  It’s a relatively small city in a valley surrounded by ruins.  The city is named after the main ruins on one side and there are less preserved and more sporadic Pinkuylluna ruins on the other.  The later are accessible for free off of an alley next to the guesthouse we stayed at.  The stairs are quite steep and rickety so Lydia wanted to turn back before we reached the first ruin.  My sister-in-law continued on and Jaime and her revisited them on a different day too.

Most of us had wanted to visit the Ollantaytambo ruins the next day but everyone backed out when we were told the price is $36 per person (a couple days later I found out that it was a weeklong pass for over a dozen locations and there was a one-day pass we could have all gotten for half the price).  I was the only one that continued and had a great time spending about two hours wandering around the site.  The altitude was definitely affecting me a bit and I almost gave up about half way up the main staircase.  I am very glad that I didn’t though.  The ruins were an expansive maze and the stonework was incredible to see, not to mention the views of the city and valleys.

Our third day there was our day trip to Machu Picchu.  We got up early and walked down to the train station.  It’s a much longer walk than it appears and I would recommend taking a motorized taxi for a few dollars instead.  The train ride was very scenic with beautiful views all around us.  It was about an hour and a half until we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the city closest to the ruins.  We met our guide there and he walked us through the large flea market of shops that crowd the area, crossed a foot bridge, and got in line for the final bus to Machu Picchu.  After a lot of switchbacks up the side of the mountain we caught a quick glimpse of the ruins before they disappeared from view until we walked in a few minutes later.

The guide spoke with a fairly thick accent and I often stayed a few steps behind to snap pictures so I missed a lot of the stories.  The ruins spoke for themselves though.  As many pictures that I’ve seen of the place, none of them prepared me for how massive and impressive the site is.  We spent a full two hours hiking around and didn’t even cover it all.  Every few feet I’d look around for a different stunning view.  We read and were told that you need parkas/umbrellas because the fog rolls in quickly and it rains a lot.  For us, it stayed perfectly clear the entire time.  It was an amazing thing to see.  We stopped at a restaurant just outside the entrance to cool down and have a quick lunch before waiting in a very long line for the bus back into town.  Once in town, we stopped for a drink and did some shopping before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo.  The train ride back was…interesting…  The attendants in each car turned into fashion models changing outfits and trying to sell anything they could.  The icing on the cake was a story about a local ritual and someone coming out in a clown costume with a dog face and danced around for 20 minutes.

On our final day in Peru I had asked the driver to make a few stops on the way back to Cusco.  It turns out that my overpriced ticket to the Ollantaytambo ruins got me in to all of the available stops which was a nice surprise.  The first place was Pisac which I hadn’t heard of previously but it was very popular.  So popular in fact that it took us nearly 45 minutes to drive up the mountain to the entrance and I ended up walking the last few blocks because the traffic was so bad.  The ruins were along the far side of the mountain and there were dozens of well-maintained terraces leading down from them.  I actually saw everything I needed to without reaching the entrance.  I started back towards the car when I ran into Jaime and everyone else.  They had finally found a parking spot so we stayed another few minutes looking around.

Next we went off in search of the famous Cusco walls.  The driver mistook my pointing on a map and instead took us to Qinqu.  Luckily my pass covered this site so I strolled through with Lydia quickly.  It was just the remnants of a quarry with one ruined building with a gorgeous view of Cusco down below.  Afterward, we headed towards the walls located at Saksaywaman.  Unfortunately it started raining so again only Lydia and I ventured inside for a few minutes.  We didn’t make it as far as the most famous part of the old city walls but we still got to see quite a lot of incredible stonework with seemingly impossible alignment.  We spent a little bit of time driving around Cusco itself.  It was a busy time of day so we didn’t actually stop anywhere.  We arrived at the airport early which ended up being a good thing because they couldn’t find half of our connecting flights.

The journey home was a little rough.  The flight from Lima had very bad turbulence and upon arrival in Miami we discovered that we lost Lydia’s passport.  We had shown it to the gate agent right before entering the gangway in Lima and we had the plane searched without luck.  After waiting for an hour for the plane search we were handed off to an immigration officer that admitted the rest of us then directed us to wait against a wall some more.  A few minutes later we were brought into a room with about 40 others that had no windows.  We thought we’d be stuck there a while and just when we started to settle in they called us up.  A few questions later and we were released into Miami!

We had a great year of traveling in 2015.  Every other year we attend both Jaime’s extended family reunion and visit my aunt and uncle in Maine so this year will be a little more low-key.  We do have one new country coming up next month though — Northern Ireland!


Alaskan Cruise

Posted by Ron on October 22nd, 2015 filed in Travel
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This trip began like so many of our trips do lately — with a deal I saw in a newsletter.  In this case, it was $599 for a 7 night cruise, including unlimited alcohol and both kids were free.  We had been planning to do an Alaskan cruise for a while and were trying to find a smaller ship but they were so much more expensive.  When this deal came up, we quickly booked the only week we both had available and invited both sides of the family to join us.  My family already had other plans but Jaime’s parents and sister were able to join us.

We arrived in Seattle the night before the cruise (we always do this to avoid any potential flight delay issues).  We didn’t do anything exciting, just a quick visit to Pike Place and dinner at Italian Family Pizza.

The first day and a half of the cruise were at sea where we partook in various onboard activities and plenty of free alcohol.  I/we have gone on several Caribbean cruises in the past and the biggest difference was the other passengers.  I usually feel a little out of place on Caribbean cruises because I am always looking for different cultures, adventure, and new experiences while the ship is full of people looking to party and sunbathe.  Alaskan cruises, or at least ours, are much more low-key.  The pools were not heated so they were barely used (with the average temperature in the low 60s), the chairs were all empty, and you could get in an empty hot tub at any time.  It was quite refreshing.

Juneau

Our first port of call was Juneau, the capital.  Jaime had found a great blog post that said to avoid most shore excursions offered by the cruise line because, in contrast with various Caribbean countries, Alaskan tour companies were all following the same rules and regulations regardless of where they are booked.

We had decided to visit the Mendenhall Glacier followed by the Mount Roberts Tram.  A tour package purchased in the tram station was about $10 less per person onshore, so it was definitely worth waiting.  The bus ride to the glacier was uneventful and the tourist center was right along the water so you could see everything almost immediately.  The main walking paths were close to a river which used to be part of the glacier a couple decades ago.  There is also a large waterfall along the cliffs to the right of the glacier.  Lydia was very excited about the waterfall so we hiked 20 minutes to reach it.  Unfortunately for her, she passed out somewhere along the hike and missed getting up close and personal.  She woke up right when we finished the return hike and wasn’t happy.  I showed her pictures of her sleeping at the base of the waterfall and she couldn’t believe it.

Afterward, we took the tram ride up Mount Roberts.  There isn’t much to see at the top other than the views down to the city.  There was a funny green-screen photo op that we did (though the cameraman never sent me the pictures via email that I paid extra for!).  Other than that, there’s a rescued bald eagle on display, a viewing platform, and a small museum that we skipped.

Skagway

This next stop is a tiny town known for a gold rush basecamp and the gateway to the Yukon.  This time around we pre-purchased the tickets for the White Pass Railway as our sources said the prices were about the same on shore.  The railroad was thought to be impossible to build and was an engineering feat of the ages.  It skirts along mountain sides and through a couple tunnels to bring people to the goldfields and, at the time, to the interior of the Yukon.  Now, the railroad is only used for tourists as it’s a very scenic and relaxing trip.

When we returned to town a few hours later, we wandered around the main drag, did a little shopping, and grabbed lunch in one of the few places that had space available.  The cruise ship guests definitely overran most of the city.  There are between 400 and 800 residents depending on season and just our cruise ship (one of 2-3 ships at each port) added over 2,500 for the day.

Glacier Bay

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw Glacier Bay on the itinerary.  I had just assumed that it was part of the inner passage on the way back.  After looking up the other ships we crossed paths with though, we realized how special we were to have it as part of the cruise.  Apparently the ship has to pay additional fees to the park service so a lot of ships take a different route.

We saw at least a dozen glaciers, including a couple of rare ones that had just opened up due to too much loose ice over the summer.  At one point, we got within a football field or two to a massive glacier and the ship spun completely around many times to make sure everyone got an amazing view.  Jaime had also just discovered the unmarked route to the bow of the ship (that is normally locked when the boat is moving) which made it an extra special affair.  Overall, it was an amazing experience.  If you take an Alaskan cruise, be sure it includes Glacier Bay.

That evening we discovered how easy it was to utilize Splash Academy for Lydia.  Our initial thought that it was specific drop-off times for short events, but it’s very flexible and Lydia loved going for an hour here and there to play with other kids for the rest of the trip.  Wish we had tried it earlier!

Ketchikan

For the next stop, we knew early on that we wanted to take a tour in a floatplane.  The prices were a bit steep on the boat — $250-280 or so a person and since I love to haggle we decided to roll the dice onshore.  After some fairly aggressive haggling and back-and-forth, I got it down to $200 a person and free kids.  After a quick van ride we arrived at the airport.  Lydia started laughing hysterically and kept saying “the plane is in the water like a boat!!!”.

The planes were 6-seaters so we had the plane to ourselves.  The main attraction for the area is the Misty Fjords National Monument and it was incredible to see it all from the air.  The flight was about an hour and a half total and it seemed like we were in a sweeping nature movie the entire time.  We even landed in the middle of a fjord and got to stand on the pontoon landing gear to soak it all up.  A great experience that was totally worth the price.

Afterward, we walked around the city a bit.  Ketchikan looked like what I expected an Alaskan city to look like.  Various colored houses and a fishing village vibe.  There is also a great old part of town with a series of houses built atop a boardwalk that overhangs a river.  It was infamous for having a lot of brothels but today it’s all shopping and preserved houses.

Victoria

Our last port of call was Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, which is about half way between Seattle and Vancouver.  The port times were 6pm to midnight which isn’t good when traveling with kids.  We decided to just take a bus into town and wander around to find dinner.  We first visited Chinatown, the oldest in Canada and second oldest in North America behind San Francisco.  We all got some bubble tea and continued walking around.  We ended up at a popular pizza place called Famoso.  The wait was quoted at 30 minutes but ended up being around an hour.  We were so glad we waited though because it was some of the best pizza we’ve ever had.

Seattle

The ship returned on a Sunday morning and since the next day was Labor Day, we decided to spend the extra time in Seattle.  After departing the ship and saying our goodbyes to Jaime’s family, we were off to check into our hotel.  We started back at Pike Place then went down the shore a bit to the Great Wheel as Lydia is obsessed with ferris wheels.  We then walked all the way to the Space Needle and went to the beautiful Chihuly Garden and Glass next door; both recommended.  For dinner we went with a local’s suggestion of Serious Pie which was good but after being spoiled by Famoso the day before it didn’t seem as great as it probably was.

That’s it for this trip!  Next up will be Bangkok in November without the kids!


Maine, Boston, and Toronto

Posted by Ron on July 19th, 2015 filed in Travel
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While these cities could be done on the same trip, and it sounds like something we’d normally do, they were actually separate trips.  Yes, I’m playing catch-up on smaller trips again!

Maine

We went to Maine to visit relatives over Labor Day last year.  We love Maine and try to make it out there every two years.

We went to the Blue Hill Fair and Acadia National Park, which occurs nearly every time we visit and spent some time in Bar Harbor.  We also took a short road trip to Bangor to stop by Stephen King’s house.  Bangor was surprisingly empty for a weekend so there wasn’t much else going on there.

The highlight of the trip was the three of us crammed into a two-person plane for a 30 minute flight over Acadia.  Jaime was slightly terrified when we drove up and saw how small the planes were but Lydia was excited enough for all of us so we couldn’t back out.  The flight was quite a thrill to experience.  Lydia had to wear a helmet with a mic to the aviation towers.  This was unexpectedly hilarious as the pilot would report our coordinates and Lydia would follow it with “BIRDIE!”.

 

Boston

Lydia and I tagged along on one of Jaime’s work trips to Boston.  It was a very strange welcome…  We had to switch subway lines twice to get into town and Boston’s train lines are all completely different so it was hard to find the right train as they weren’t connected and looked like they were from different eras.  In the middle of it all, we had someone call us “rich, white, motherf’ers” just for paying the fare!

Once we got to the tourist areas though it was fine.  We did all the typical tourist things — Paul Revere’s House, Boston Commons (including the new Edgar Allan Poe statue), Faneuil Hall, and Quincy Market.  That day we also wandered the old North End, visited some cemeteries, and got in a random long line which turned out to be for amazing cannolis at Mike’s Pastry.  Over the next two days we took a great Duck Tour, a highlight for Lydia, went to the top of Prudential Tower, and spent some time at the Boston Children’s Museum.

 

Toronto

Most recently we spent a long weekend in Toronto.  On the way to Montreal last year over the 4th of July the Canadian border patrol pointed out that we had left the US the year before for Calgary, so we decided to continue the trend and go to Canada for another 4th of July.

The trip there looks to be 8 hours on paper but with traffic and kids it was closer to 10.  We arrived at 2am and crashed immediately.

The next morning we got up and drove another 90 minutes to Niagra Falls.  It was a bit crazy and full of tourists so we headed straight to the pier to take a boat trip to the Falls via Hornblower (formerly Maid of the Mist).  I haven’t done this trip in probably 15-20 years, so it was a trip down memory lane.  Lydia loved it until we got closer to the falls and it was “raining in the boat”.  We had a quick lunch in town and then went on the Skywheel (Lydia is obsessed with ferris wheels) for some great views.  Afterward we headed back to Toronto for dinner at Pickle Barrel.

The next morning started off with a walk to St. Lawrence’s Market for the famous peameal bacon sandwiches from Carousel Bakery.  We then continued the walk east to visit the Distillery Historic District.  It’s a relatively small area with pedestrian-only brick roads.  It was very well preserved, though with modern shops, and felt like I was back in time.  We then ventured to the north side of town to Casa Loma.  After a long walk and up a large flight of stairs, we ran into a very long line and decided to turn back after snapping some pictures of the outside.

Next we went to the famous Caplansky’s Deli for lunch.  Our plans afterward were to take the subway back to the hotel but there was a very hip street (Augusta) that we just couldn’t walk past.  We ended up walking down that street for a couple miles.  It turned out that we wandered into the newly gentrified Kensington neighborhood.  It was full of hip shops, restaurants, and street carts.  It felt like a totally different world where everyone was selling their goods in a shop that could disappear tomorrow.  Our favorite stop was Wanda’s Pie in the Sky where we had an amazing slice of pie and contemplated how to bring an entire pie home.  After a quick stop at the hotel we went to Pizzeria Libretto off West Queen Street for dinner followed by a worthy long line at Bang Bang Ice Cream for dessert.

On our last morning we went to the top of the CN Tower.  Literally the top too!  They have an add-on ticket to the much smaller ‘skypod’ that’s 33 stories higher than the observation deck.  Totally worth it if you get there early enough to avoid the lines.  The trip back was mostly uneventful.  We did a quick detour to Hell, Michigan which is a quirky little town with basically two businesses.  Probably not worth a going there by itself but if it’s not too far out of the way, it was a good way to break up the trip a bit.

 

We have also spent separate weekends in Branson (family reunion), Memphis (Thanksgiving), St. Louis (Easter), and Milwaukee as well as camped a couple of times so far this year.

Up next will be an Alaskan cruise next month followed by Thanksgiving in Bangkok.


Montreal

Posted by Ron on July 27th, 2014 filed in Travel
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Shortly after our Iceland trip, we bought an Aliner camper and have taken it out twice since then.  Unfortunately for the blog, camping trips typically do not have enough activities for a write-up.  With that, I’m pleased to announce that Jaime and I took a real trip a few weeks ago!  My sister had time off work, so she offered to watch our daughter, which of course meant that we had to leave the country.  For a long weekend, it didn’t make too much sense to go very far, so we narrowed it down to Canada or Central America and the flights ended up being the best timing and cost for Montreal.

We flew in late on a Thursday evening and immediately crashed at Hotel 10 in the Latin Quarter.  We chose the location because it was in the middle of the three neighborhoods we intended to visit and it was relatively close to public transportation.

Friday morning we hit the ground running and walked around the Plateau neighborhood with a breakfast stop at a great diner named Beauty’s.  Plateau is a lively area with two main roads that crisscross the neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and bars.  The most unique thing is that nearly all open walls are covered with very large, ornate, and detailed graffiti.  We then headed west to Mount Royal, a large park on a small mountain next to downtown.  I foolishly thought we could walk across the whole thing in order to get to St. Joseph’s Oratory.  After about 20 minutes of hiking we looked at the GPS on our phones and we were only about a fifth of the way, so we decided to turn back and walk around the mountain (assuming flat walking would be easier).  After a couple of hills we decided to take a cab.  Good thing too because it was a roller coaster of a cab ride; we never would have made it!

We had the cab take us to the top parking lot of St. Joseph’s Oratory, not realizing that we bypassed most of the usual tour.  Regardless, the oratory was stunning and we did the full tour in reverse.  The other notable things are the elaborate candle tributes on the first level, escalators everywhere (first ones we’ve seen in a church), and a glass-enclosed heart of a Brother involved with the church.  There are also some great views of the area from a terrace outside one of the levels.  After our self-guided tour was over, we took a cab across town to the place that invented poutine, La Banquise.  While we both don’t fully understand the poutine phenomenon, I must say it was very tasty!  We walked off some of it on the way back to the hotel to take a nap.  For dinner we took the metro downtown to a Portuguese restaurant that was recommended to me, Ferreira Cafe.  We quickly learned that “cafe” can mean anything in Montreal — from an actual cafe, to a full service restaurant, to a night club.  We walked back on the busy St. Catherine’s Street and ran into the popular International Jazz Festival (“jazz” is another loose term in Montreal), where we enjoyed a few performances.

Saturday morning, we tackled the bus system in order to try out the famous original St. Viateur Bagel shop in the Mile End neighborhood.  I had read about lines there but when we arrived, we were the only people around.  The original location is just a pickup place, so we grabbed a couple bagels and ate on a nearby bench.  They were so tasty, we decided we had to try the nearly-as-famous Fairmount Bagel a few blocks away to compare.  There was definitely more variety and we ended up liking each place for different reasons.  After breakfast we went to Jean-Talon Market, one of the oldest public markets in Montreal.  We thoroughly enjoyed wandering around and purchased some sweets for the rest of the trip.  We then took the metro to Old Montreal and went straight to the Old Port to catch an extended boat cruise.  The cruise was very relaxing and a great way to break up the day.  Back in port, we spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling around Old Montreal, mainly along St. Paul Street and in the square around Notre-Dame Basilica (which was unfortunately closed for a wedding).  We also enjoyed an impromptu performance on a public piano outside the Museum of Archaeology and History.  For dinner, the hotel recommended nearby Restaurant Laloux, which served delicious French food.

The morning of our final day in Montreal, we realized that it’s not really a breakfast-eating city.  There were few breakfast/brunch locations and the streets were nearly empty before around 10am.  We ended up going to Eggspectation with seemingly every other tourist in town.  It was pretty standard fare and hit the spot.  After breakfast, we made a quick stop back at Fairmount Bagel to pick up some to bring home before heading over to Olympic Park.  We spent a couple hours at Olympic Park which was mostly converted to a massive diverse Biodome.  Also at the site is the tallest inclined tower in the world where we took in the sweeping views of the city.  Our final stop was the must-go Schwartz’s Deli, famous for smoked meat.  We enjoyed the experience even though we got shamed for not eating meat (“meat” means beef in Montreal).

So with only two and a half days in Montreal, I think we covered all of the highlights and had a great time.  It’s definitely a nice walkable city that has a more European feel than you’ll find elsewhere in this hemisphere.  We’ll have to go back with the whole family in a few years.  One important tip: the weekend metro pass includes the bus to the airport, which separately costs just about as much as the weekend pass, so it’s a real steal of a deal.


Iceland

Posted by Ron on February 17th, 2014 filed in Travel
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So Jaime and I were discussing a few months ago how we’d only gone to Canada outside of the US in 2013 and that needed to change.  As I’ve mentioned before, we are both subscribed to a lot of travel newsletters and just as we were thinking about where to go we get the weekly Travelzoo deals and see an insanely cheap deal to Iceland for three nights through Gate 1 Travel and couldn’t pass it up!

Our flight left at 3pm on Thursday, February 6th and arrived at 9am on Friday in Iceland.  Our plan was to all get some sleep on the way over, but Lydia decided against that idea.  The daylight this time of year is from 10am-5pm, so we picked up the rental car in the pitch black and were told “if there are any dents, just take a picture and email us”.  We get to the Best Western Hotel Reykjavik and while the lobby was packed, they were able to get us a room right away and we all crashed for a few hours.

We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the capitol.  We walked along the coast taking in the beautiful scenery and had a quick warm-up stop inside the unique Harpa concert hall.  It’s a building made out of tons of cubes that light up and dance with different colors in the evening.  We then cut up through the old city center and found a great lunch place full of locals.  It was our first and only traditional Icelandic meal.  We didn’t realize it at the time but our schedule was very demanding and none of the recommended restaurants seemed especially family friendly so we did a lot of take-out or diner-type food.  On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at the imposing Hallgrimskirkja (church).  It’s only eight stories high but it towers over the city and offers amazing views from the top.  We stopped back at the hotel and booked a whale watching tour for Saturday and then picked up pizza from Gamla Smiðjan for dinner.  We attempted to sleep at around 10pm, but we ended up until 3 or 4am since Lydia was still on Chicago time.

Thankfully, the whale watching tour was at 1pm, so we were able to sleep in.  We got picked up from the hotel and then switched buses to leave out of a different port 45 minutes away where whales had been seen the day before.  Good thing we did because we ended up seeing five orca (killer) whales — four female and one male!  It did take a while to find them and we weren’t very optimistic until another boat spotted them and radioed our boat.  In all, it was about five and a half hours so we only had about an hour to find dinner and buy some wool for the Northern Lights tour that was part of the Gate 1 Travel package.  I bought some wool gear for the cold night ahead at the best named place ever — Woolcano, and then I drove around town like a maniac looking for fast food with parking nearby and finally end up at a deli that sold delicious paninis.  I made it back to the hotel just as the bus was loading up.

Unfortunately, the time zone change finally caught up to Lydia and she was um, expressing her displeasure, on a bus full of 80 people!  It was on and off on the drive out to find a dark, clear place but after a quick nap at our second stop she was upset most of the way home.  That stressful situation aside, we did get to see some amazing Northern Lights!  What you don’t know before seeing them is that you really need to hunt for them.  They aren’t everywhere and they aren’t always that clear.  Your camera picks up a lot more color and definition than your eyes do.  We did have an embarrassing moment where we (read: I) couldn’t figure out how to get our fancy Canon to take pictures at night!  Jaime luckily found someone with a similar camera that was able to change a few settings and give us lots of pointers on how to capture the lights.  They are very hard to keep in focus, but it was still a great experience.  On the way to a second location, we instead stopped when the lights started popping up behind the clouds like lightning!  It was quite a surreal experience.

Our last full day was spent driving all over the place.  We started off following the traditional Golden Triangle route to Thingvellir National Park where Iceland was founded and you can walk between still-very-slowing-moving tectonic plates.  Next we were off to a geothermal area called Geysir (where the word geyser comes from).  We were expecting a town, but it was more of a tourist trap visitor center next to the hot springs.  There were a lot of smoking holes in the ground with minor activity and one active geyser which erupts every 3-5 minutes.  After a quick lunch there, we continued to the last stop on the Golden Triangle — Gulfoss.  It’s the most visited waterfall in Iceland (or so the maps say), but it’s very underwhelming when you get there.  You can see nothing and the ground is flat all around you.  After walking down a path for a short distance, you finally get to see the wide, two-tiered waterfall.  It was a beautiful sight to see but the freezing wind kept our visit pretty short.

Instead of following the route back to Reykjavik from there we decided to drive down to the South Coast area to see some more sights.  Originally we had planned a full day for the southern area but the whale watching tour is only at 1pm during the winter so we shuffled things around a bit.  With the cold weather and short days, it worked out for the best anyway.  Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a high and wide waterfall that has a path where you can walk behind it!  Unfortunately, it was very icy so I stayed back with Lydia while Jaime attempted the frozen stair climb.  She made it all the way up the stairs and then the path deteriorated quickly so she turned back.  By the time she made it down the iced-over stairs she couldn’t feel her hands!  We’ll have to revisit here in the summer…  Our next sight was the volcano that tried to ruin our honeymoon in 2010, Eyjafjallajokull.  There wasn’t much to see as it’s tucked into the ongoing mountain range but we knew where it was thanks to a visitor center set up to commemorate the event (except that they wanted $7.50 to walk inside the tiny shack so we opted out).  Our last stop on the South Coast was Skogafoss, another famous waterfall that had a nice rainbow in the mist as the water tumbled into a stream surrounded by black sand.

After that, we headed back to Reykjavik and ate dinner at an American-style diner (but not the official “American Style” restaurant).  One word of warning — the food is insanely expensive all over Iceland.  For example, a simple chicken sandwich was $21, and that’s the norm!  This fact is another reason we didn’t eat out too much.  After dinner, it was dark out so we decided to go hunting for more Northern Lights!  Rather than head out to the middle of nowhere again, I had read about a lighthouse on the coast that had good views so we went there.  Right away we could see some and after having the camera almost blown over a couple times, we spent most of the time in the car enjoying the show.

We slept in on our last day in Iceland too.  After a quick breakfast at the hotel we drove down to the Blue Lagoon.  It’s a total tourist trap with high prices though I’d still say it’s a must-see.  It’s a huge, steamy lagoon that was created by the runoff water from a nearby factory.  It’s much more glamorous than it sounds, trust me.  After soaking in the geothermal waters for about 90 minutes, we showered, packed up, and caught our flights back home!  The flights were uneventful though upon returning home we found that Lydia had taken an Icelandic souvenir — the hotel remote control (which is now on another flight back)!


2013 Round-up

Posted by Ron on January 8th, 2014 filed in Travel
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While we haven’t done any major trips since Banff in July, we have gotten out a town several times that we didn’t get a chance to write about.

In the interest of keeping this blog up-to-date with all our trips, I thought I’d mention each one with a quick summary.

Washington DC

Jaime had a lot of traveling to do for work in the late summer and throughout the Fall.  In late July, both Lydia and I tagged along on a trip to DC.  We got to hang out with Jaime’s law school friend Melissa and her family and while Jaime was working, Lydia and I wandered around the National Mall.  It was extremely hot so we ducked into several lesser known museums just to keep cool!  The highlight was being able to see the rare corpse flower in person, although it didn’t bloom until we were on the flight home.

Traverse City

Over Labor Day weekend we went camping with some friends in Empire, MI, which is in between Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.  We spent a day in each location.  Traverse City is a very cute, albeit touristy, city where you just stroll around.  We also drove up a nearby peninsula and did a winery tour.  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park has a few scenic overlooks but the highlight is the dunes themselves.  They are very high and very steep and descend directly into Lake Michigan.  There were people getting dropped off in boats at the bottom and spending several hours climbing to the top!

California Coast

In late September I went to a conference in LA, but beforehand I attended a vow renewal for some friends in Santa Cruz outside of San Francisco.  My sister and brother-in-law picked me up in SF and we spent a few hours wandering around town and touring a trolley museum.  After the vow renewal, I decided to rent a car and do the scenic drive down the coast to LA.  Google Maps said it would be about 9.5 hours but with all my scenic detours and photo op stops, it ended up being over 13 hours!  Quite a long day, but it was very nice.  The conference was in the Disneyland Hotel which was insanely luxurious and I was able to catch up with some former coworkers over dinner each night.

Salt Lake City

In late October, I was able to meet up with Jaime in SLC in the middle of a 6-city-hopping work trip.  Lydia spent a few nights with my sister which they both thoroughly enjoyed.  Each day while Jaime was working, I drove up into the mountains to go hiking and take pictures.  It was quite surreal to drive up the mountains where it was constantly snowing.  While mostly fun, I did nearly get stuck on a snowy trail and realized that I need hiking boots and a pole next time I try that!  With Jaime, we visited Temple Square and ate at a great restaurant named Eva.  We also drove about 90 minutes west of SLC to the Bonneville Salt Flats where they do a lot of racing.  By far the most unique experience was soaking for an hour in a natural geothermal crater in the middle of nowhere.

North Woods

In mid-November, we had planned for a long weekend in the North Woods of Wisconsin with my immediate family.  Unfortunately Jaime and my sister couldn’t make it, so it was just my mom, Lydia, and myself.  We still had a great time though!  It was a rather chilly weekend so we didn’t do much outdoors.  We drove up to Lake Superior and back through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a quick stop in an Indian Reservation.  Other than that we relaxed in the unique treehouse-style resort with a toasty fireplace!

New Orleans

Last, but certainly not least, we spent a few days in New Orleans before driving up to Memphis for Christmas.  We flew in on Saturday morning and while Lydia took a nap I wandered around the French Quarter solo and picked up some famous muffulettas from Central Grocery for us.  After meeting up with Jaime’s family, we wandered around the French Quarter and went to the Camelia Grill for dinner.  It was raining the entire second day so we spent most of the day indoors at the extensive World War II Museum.  We had a great lunch at Luke restaurant and cabbed it over to the famous Cafe du Monde for beignets.  On the walk back to the hotel in the rain, we finally gave in and bought some touristy ponchos and had a quick dinner at Huck Finn’s Cafe.  On our last full day, Jaime and I went to the nearby Saint Louis Cemetery Number One before meeting up with everyone at Tujague’s for a traditional New Orleans lunch.  After some more wandering around the French Quarter, we went to the historic Arnaud’s for dinner.  Jaime’s mom kindly took Lydia back to the hotel while the rest of us went on a ghost walking tour.  Once the tour was over, Jaime and I went to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, “the oldest bar in the US”, and thoroughly enjoyed the candlelit piano playing to end the night.  On our final morning, we went to Mothers for breakfast and then drove up to Memphis for Christmas.